‘One With the Truck’: Gragg Wilson’s Road to NTDC Title
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During the first three days of competition at American Trucking Associations’ “Super Bowl of Safety,” several elite drivers found themselves in emotionally draining places.
These competitors spoke the language of doubt and worry. Their confidence diminished. A few even questioned their place in this valley of virtuosos.
At the 86th annual National Truck Driving Championships and National Step Van Driving Championships, a tournament exclusively for state-level champions, Nevada’s Gragg Wilson was among the cadre of competitors succumbing to the pressure.
Spoiler alert: The 59-year-old trucker with UPS went on to earn this year’s Bendix Grand Champion trophy in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 19. However, en route to winning the event’s highest honor, Wilson conceded he felt stuck in a three-dimensional chess spiral after the first round of action.
Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level who have advanced to the national competition, where a Grand Champion will be crowned
What: Contestants are judged on a written exam, pre-trip inspection and driving skills
When: Aug. 16-19
Where: Columbus, Ohio
Despite participating in his 14th nationals, Wilson pinged experience as untrustworthy. He convinced himself he had flopped the driving course. His disappointment was compounded by a sense of self-doubt because he figured his approach to the tournament’s written exam was plagued by imperfections.
The two challenges are keys for advancing to the finals.
As Wilson turned his focus to the event’s pre-trip vehicle inspection, performed on a tanker truck, he surmised: “I was kind of contemplating: Do I even want to do this anymore. Because of all the emotional ups and downs and just beating myself up mentally as far as — I work all year to do this. And then I come back and I, you know, here I am on my 14th time and I still haven’t been on stage.”
Getting to Know You
Name: James Gragg Wilson
From: Reno, Nev.
Vehicle: Tank truck
NTDC appearances: 14
NTDC career: Vehicle Condition Award (2000); State Team Award-Nevada, 1st place (2018); Grand Champion (2023)
Professional driving career: 37 years
Inspiration to pursue trucking: Jim Wilson (father)
Biggest supporter: Denise Wilson (wife)
Favorite food: Homemade bacon cheeseburger
Last movie you watched: “Vanishing Point”
Sports hero: Former heavyweight champion George Foreman
Why do you compete at NTDC: “The camaraderie. I like seeing all my friends, and I’m always hopeful to see them again at nationals.”
What song did you accidentally learned all the lyrics to: “Baby Shark”
All-time favorite vacation: “Quiet little beach on an island in Honduras”
Something people don’t know about you: “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“I was ready to just say, you know, I’ll just come back and be a volunteer,” Wilson told Transport Topics from his home in Reno, Nev., on Aug. 21.
After he completed the pre-trip inspection assignment, Wilson’s wife, Denise, and their friends greeted him with pleasant news.
“She’s sitting with her smile. And I’m like, ‘What are you smiling about?’ And they’re like, ‘You had a good score.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You’re just saying that to make me feel good.’ And then they go, ‘No, you had a really good score.’ ”
Fast forward to the morning of NTDC’s final day, Aug. 19, and tournament Chairman Rodney Myers announced the finalists in the tanker division, along with those in the eight other classes.
Wilson said he was surprised when Myers called his name to join the other four finalists in his class.
The tanker competitors met the 41 drivers in the eight divisions for the finals. The 45 finalists were pursuing national titles in their respective groups. The best-in-show among them — which, again, turned out to be Wilson — would be crowned grand champion.
Toiling in the finals alongside longtime friend, former FedEx colleague and two-time NTDC grand champion Roland Bolduc, Wilson said he was determined to shine. His confidence, concentration and conviction simply kicked into overdrive.
“It just felt like I was one with the truck,” Wilson explained. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard like when people, or like a baseball player when he’s at bat and the ball comes in and it looks like a watermelon. Because that’s how I felt. It just felt like everything was crystal clear.
“I was in the zone, but I was not nervous at all. I was very comfortable, composed.”
In the final round, Wilson skillfully avoided hitting a rubber duck on the course, a toy used for simulating an obstacle. He also brilliantly aligned his tanker in an alley dock simulation (replicating his first-round perfect score in the same maneuver).
Gragg Wilson was announced as the tank truck class winner before he was named grand champion at the NTDC banquet in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 19. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
At the ceremony on the evening of Aug. 19, Myers announced the nine national title winners. Wilson took home top honors in the tanker class. For the big reveal, Myers called Wilson back to the stage. The 2023 grand champion trophy was his to keep.
“I was pretty overwhelmed. I was very happy. … part of me was like, ‘finally,’ you know. Because it’s been a long time,” he said of chasing the blue ribbon. “It was very exciting. It was a little bit of a relief that I finally did it. … So I was very happy, but I was also very relieved.”
Wilson also said of his championship venture, “It hasn’t really sunk in exactly the whole realm of where this is. … It’s an honor and it makes me feel really good about my career.
“And I did it for all the other people that have tried to get there and haven’t — it’s just good to know that they can do it, too. Because if I can do it anybody can do it.”
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